The Elusive Racket-tailed Roller of Makuleke

The Racket-tailed Roller has a rather limited distribution in South Africa, primarily being found in the far northeastern tip of Kruger National Park which is dominated by Mopane (Colophospermum mopane) which occurs in dense stands with limited ground cover as its understory. Let instructor Ross Hawkins explain more about this elusive bird.

The Racket-tailed Roller is considered relatively rare for South Africa. This is mainly due to their habitat requirement, they are also referred to as being ‘locally common’, a term which maybe doesn’t make much sense in that this bird is a very unobtrusive species i.e. it is so easily overlooked due to its quiet nature and being very ‘un-roller‘ like.

Rollers like the Lilac-breasted Roller, Broad-billed Roller and Purple Roller all perch in a very prominent spot at the top of a tree and either loudly announcing their presence to all listening ears or displaying their territorial dominance, whereas Racket-tailed Rollers perch closer to the ground maybe mid-way up the tree on a small branch close to the trunk where it will occasionally swoop down to capture a prey item below and then one gets a view of a brilliant blue flash as it appears out of nowhere it seems to glide down and then return to its perch to consume its catch.

When this specific roller feels disturbance, it will place its back to said disturbance which is a pale brown colour and so effectively disappearing into the mottled background of its Mopane surrounds.

Racket-tailed roller

Where could find these elusive Racket-tailed Rollers?

Racket-tailed Rollers are solitary nesters using a natural cavity or an old woodpecker hole in the trunk of Mopane trees. However, in Makuleke (northern Kruger National Park) they have been located nesting inside some of the fever trees (Vachellia xanthophloea) which has been an unusual discovery – as mentioned above they are considered to be Mopane specialists.

This particular stretch of the fever tree forest actually now referred to as Racket-tailed clearing. In recent times the birds have been leaving the forest for their preferred habitat in the ridges and so it makes it more difficult to find these beautiful birds.

In October with the arrival of their very loud cousins the Broad-billed Rollers the forest is full of territorial Broad-bills looking to start breeding, this then means that Rackets move out looking for peace and quiet. These birds are very territorial and so they normally breed as a single monogamous pair, however in two localities that I know of there are at least four birds staying in the same patch of Mopane, which means that possibly there is some co-operative breeding taking (pure speculation on my part).

A trip up to Makuleke is always great, especially when you’re in search for these special birds but there is the very high reality that one may leave without connecting with these beautiful blue beauties so it just means that a return trip needs to be planned for.